With the release of debut album ‘Culling Culture’, the British band are sweeping away negativity, and everything else that gets in their way.
About ten years ago, you might have noticed something unusual if you were driving down a main road near the town of Stevenage in the English county of Hertfordshire. Around 10pm, Megan Targett’s mother used to set off and start driving nowhere particular with her teenage daughter in the back seat. On the car’s stereo, Slipknot’s “Psychosocial” and Parkway Drive’s “Carrion” were played at full blast. ‘Mum, don’t listen, don’t listen,’ Megan pleaded. Then she began screaming along to the songs – enclosed in the soundproofed safe space of the vehicle tearing along the motorway. It was on these drives that Megan Targett honed her voice to become the roar that thunders through Vexed’s debut album, ‘Culling Culture’.
Targett couldn’t practise at home. In the two-bedroom house she lived in with her three siblings and five dogs, screaming at the top of her lungs would have prompted one of her ‘curtain-twitchy’ neighbours to call the police – already frequent visitors to the council estate where she lived. The scream-drives also saved her from embarrassment in front of her siblings, and her mother – a fan of Slayer, Metallica and Motörhead – was happy to oblige.
The other song Targett practised on those drives was “Sleep With One Eye Open” by Bring Me The Horizon, from their 2008 album ‘Suicide Season’. She was introduced to the band when she was fourteen by a boy playing it in a classroom at breaktime. For Targett, it was ground zero on her journey into heavy music: ‘It absolutely brought me into this world’.
By that age she attended a specialist school that supported children who had been severely bullied. Targett never knew her father and was brought up by her mother and her twin sister. The latter died of cancer when Targett was ten. She died in the bedroom Targett lives in today, surrounded by Targett’s mother and the kids. It was a gut-ripping, traumatic event that destroyed Targett’s self-confidence when she started secondary school soon afterwards: ‘I was the youngest in my year and I had just lost my second mum. I just felt like I had no one and nothing. The only thing I could do was just sit and listen to music. I was too nervous and shy to make friends. I was too depressed to make friends, and the other kids just hated me for it.’
Her mother took her out of the school. After a period of home learning she started at the new institution. Surrounded by fellow outcasts, she didn’t enjoy the experience much at the time but with hindsight she plainly sees the benefits. It put her on the path she is on now, first identifying with Bring Me The Horizon – a band who were derided by a large faction of the metal scene when they emerged. ‘They were despised by a lot of people. But I think that’s what drew me to them more, because I am a sucker for a band that’s hated,’ says Targett.
There’s a big part of Targett and Vexed that invites, and thrives on, the haters. On “Weaponise”, one of many scorching tracks on their album, Targett exclaims, ‘If you really want to succeed, better get yourself some enemies’. The same goes for smashing the preconceptions of a female singer in heavy music. From previous bandmates who insisted she sing Paramore and Evanescence covers, to a scene where, as Targett puts it, ‘there are a lot of fans who believe that women in metal should wear corsets and flowing skirts’ – she is itching to take on all comers. It reflects an ongoing turmoil still raging in the singer. ‘There’s a war inside of me,’ she sings on “Epiphany”, ‘it’s impossible to see how any outcome ends in victory’.
The thing is, Targett can also sing – really sing. One of the most thrilling aspects of ‘Culling Culture’ is how deftly she weaves in her cleans. So one of the big surprises speaking to her is how self-critical she is of the melodic lightness of a couple of songs on the album. She compares the experience of listening to some of the older songs as looking at old photos of herself. On “Purity” and “Aurora”, in particular, she feels the band was second-guessing what the audience might like to hear. (I have to admit they are two of my favourites.)
Instead, she points to “Fake” (written later) as where they found their feet – a bouncy, dissonant song where the chorus sounds like it is mining its way to the bloodiest confrontation: ‘Deadweight gets left behind, trim the fat, cut the ties’. It speaks to the core theme of ‘Culling Culture’ – a play on ‘cancel culture’ but a favourite term of the band’s group chat – where ‘culling’ is a metaphor for shedding the people and dramas, that in Targett’s eyes, ‘bring you nothing but pain and negativity’.
I find the prospect of Vexed further hardening up their sound a little scary. Their latest single, “Misery”, bursts out like guitarist Jay Bacon decided to straighten out the opening riff of Meshuggah’s “Dancers to a Discordant System”. Vexed’s downtuned style and jagged rhythms recalls the Swedes, but they make more use of space in their songs and layer it all with synths that evoke an uneasy horror-movie atmosphere. Targett’s love of hip-hop, grime and trap accounts for the scatter-gun barking at the opening of “Narcissist” and the delightful way she winds up lines in the verses of album closer “Lazarus”. Targett loves the celebratory self-love of those genres as much as their cadences.
‘So, female rappers and grime artists, and even male rappers, grime and hip-hop artists – their lyrics are so much about self-love and self-respect and how much they love themselves,’ Targett explains. ‘And even though I don’t really write lyrics like that, so to speak, it always drew me in because I love how much these people just hype themselves up, and everybody else hypes them for it. You have people like, for example, Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B – they did the “WAP” thing. And they got so much hate for it but it was like the best thing in 2020 was to hear these women say, nah, we absolutely LOVE ourselves and you love us too. And yeah it just gives me hope, the rap scene. And it gives me inspiration for writing lyrics about self-respect and self-love. Just listening to their rhythms and their flows as well, it’s just so much more interesting and cool. And especially when you can use it in a scream-y kind of way, and an angry way. It just brings a whole different level to my writing that maybe doesn’t translate but I use it in that way.’
Vexed is an ongoing project in self-acceptance. I ask Targett, who is candid about the fact there was ‘a lot of violence and a lot of abuse from men and it was a really shit situation’ when she was growing up, whether she is taking aim at the lazy privileges of others when she sings about ‘noble blood’ (“Purity”), ‘blue blood’ (“Weaponise”) and ‘the silver platter’ (“Fake”). It stems from tensions circulating in her wider family. Targett’s grandparents had adopted her mother. In contrast to Targett’s home life, they ‘lived a mile down the road and had worked really, really hard throughout their life, had a lovely home and were friends with incredibly wealthy people whose children I was friends with. I saw both sides of that coin and I went to friends’ houses who had indoor swimming pools and aeroplanes and Maseratis and everything just on their drive.’
Targett was ashamed to let these friends come to her house but soon learned that they loved it: ‘Because they were surrounded by exactly the same things as I was: abuse and neglect and pain. And the mention of the sort of blue blood and that sort of thing is me saying it doesn’t matter where you come from. I’ve seen both sides of the coin and there are fucking arseholes on either side of them. So it really doesn’t matter where you come from – how much money you have in your pocket. If you’re an arsehole, you’re an arsehole.’
“Purity” in particular refers to the haughty manner in which her grandparents’ other children treated their adopted sister and her kids. Targett learned the hard way that the British class system is a facade for viciousness. Like many of the behaviours she calls out on the album, it’s time for it to be culled.
Completed by drummer Willem Mason-Geraghty and bassist Al Harper, Vexed emerged seemingly fully formed. The band’s first, independently-released single, “Elite”, features CJ McMahon from Thy Art Is Murder. Targett had DM’d him on Instagram and was astonished that he agreed to talk about contributing vocals to the song. Vexed clearly know what they are doing. Bacon’s parents are musicians. Even Targett’s father, who wants nothing to do with her, was an aspiring musician. Her success in Vexed is sweet revenge, though like all revenge it never fully hits the spot. As 2020 went to hell, the pandemic delayed the album’s release and a supporting slot to Whitechapel was scrapped. But with the team behind them, it seems to be a matter of not if, but when, the band explodes.
Vexed join a fascinating axis of almost cartoonishly heavy bands, who defy a lot of conventions of how metal should look and sound. Alongside Thy Art Is Murder, who at numerous European festivals in summer 2019 delivered awesomely brutal deathcore sets while CJ McMahon was dressed in a leopard-print shirt, there are fellow Aussies Alpha Wolf (read an interview with them here) and Sheffield’s Malevolence. The latter two are supporting Thy Art Is Murder on a European tour later this year. Targett is a fan of Malevolence: ‘They’re such a perfect example of how they can look really cool driving in their Mercedes and really sick in their North Face hoodies and stuff, but they also realise that they’re probably not taking themselves seriously at the same time.’
I asked Alex Taylor, singer of Malevolence, about this when they released ‘The Other Side’ EP last year: ‘It’s not something that we’ve done intentionally. We’re not trying to play on anything. We just wear what we want. We just play the music that we like. It’s always kinda been like that. Never really crossed our minds, to be honest. But I guess for someone in the metal genre it probably looks a bit strange. To me that’s due to our upbringing or where we were raised. It’s something we don’t really think about all that much. We still get comments on our old videos saying “why are these guys wearing North Face jackets?” To me, I’m so – why not?! [Laughs] The stereotypical image of a metalhead in 2020 is kinda mixed now. You’ve got kids turning up to shows wearing full Nike tracksuits. Doesn’t mean they are any less passionate about the music.’
For anyone who grew up in the nineties, Vexed’s ready engagement with the entanglements of mental health and streetwise dress sense recalls the sonic and aesthetic upheavals of nu metal. ‘A huge amount of the music I listen to daily is nu metal and I love nu metal,’ says Targett. ‘So when we were writing sometimes I do come out with stuff that’s a bit nu metal and we say, “Ah, we need to reel that in a little bit”. But maybe it will come out a bit more.’
As cyclical as these things are, it does seem that the gap between the bands in the metal scene espousing a social-realist view of the struggles within, and those that dwell in more fantastic realms, is widening once again. It raises the question of how great a wedge Vexed can drive into the scene when they are finally let out of the blocks to tour properly.
In a period of acute crisis, this might mean a necessary end to the concept of the rockstar itself. If musicians distance themselves from fans who seek comfort and redemption, rather than escapism, they risk failing to answer an urgent call.
‘I do understand the whole rockstar era and being a whole untouchable kind of character, where you don’t speak to anybody or have contact with your fans – you’re just this persona onstage,’ says Targett. ‘That is cool and it has its purpose but I think we’ve kind of gotten to a place in the world where everything is really fucked and people just want to feel understood and feel like they’re part of something. I think it’s really important for people to feel like they’re not alone and that bands that they listen to are just people too and they understand you.’
For a singer seething with conflicted emotions and an album called ‘Culling Culture’, it is an irony not lost on Targett that their message is, ultimately, one of connection.
‘Culling Culture’ is released 21st May on Napalm Records. Pre-order the album – HERE